Jacob Heilbrunn

Are China's Neocons Taking Power?

So China flew its experimental J-20 stealth fighter jet while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting President Hu Jintao? It would be hard to think of a more calculated insult--and one that America should, and will, take in stride. The Los Angeles Times reports that China's military didn't even bother to inform the civilian leadership. Gates knew about the test. Hu didn't.

What does that tell you?

The real snub wasn't directed at Gates but at Hu and his associates. Could it be that the real China threat is a military going rogue? It's clear that China's military is balking at pretty much everything the Obama administration wants. It doesn't want to rein in North Korea. It doesn't want strategic talks with America.

The LA Times politely says that Chinese military circles, like some in American ones, see us as a threat rather than a partner. But the situations are different. America is an established power trying to maintain the status quo in Asia, perhaps even to improve it. China, on the other hand, appears to be a rising power, one that wants to upend the status quo rather than preserve it. It could be argued, as some realists doubtless will, that this is simply a tragic collision of interests. The peaceful types will argue that all this can be resolved or that economic ties will supersede any potential conflicts.

There can be no doubting that America has a lot invested in the China relationship. But so does Beijing. In the end, it may come down to money. Obama (and Gates) are trying to shrink the American military without engaging in too much shrinkage of its actual commitments. Perhaps America will even have to enunicate an "Asia First" policy if it wants to maintain its might in the region. Certainly Gates himself is pointing to the danger of a missile threat from North Korea. It would be in Beijing's interest to cooperate with Washington in defanging the North Korea threat.

But the temptation to use North Korea as a weapon to torment Washington may be too much for Beijing's hawkish types to resist. If they cooperated, America would have less incentive to bulk up, or maintain, its forces in the region. Instead, China is, from its own standpoint, perversely encouraging America to remain. But that's what happens when the civilian diplomats get shunted aside by the hawkish military neocons. And for now, it looks as though China's neocons have the upper hand. Like the neocons who wrecked American foreign policy, they may be poised to follow policies that are actually inimical to China's true interests, while arguing that they are pursuing its true ones.